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Suffolk County’s largest sewer expansion is not a one-size-fits-all solution

Office of Nassau County Executive Laura Curran

Suffolk County will break ground later this month in its largest sewer expansion in decades. The two long-awaited projects in Babylon and Mastic will cost about $400 million to connect more than 4,200 homes to public sewers.

WSHU’s J.D. Allen explored why Suffolk County wants to upgrade its wastewater systems in our new climate podcast, Higher Ground. In an extended interview, he spoke to the man in charge of the upgrades: Peter Scully, deputy Suffolk County executive for administration, also known as the water quality czar.

Joshua Joseph/WSHU Public Radio

PS: As it would imply, my responsibilities are very broad. This county executive is the very first one to take on the broader issue of Suffolk County having been developed in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

Without sewer infrastructure, one of the things that makes us much different than our neighbor to the west, Nassau County is mostly sewered, about 75% sewered; Suffolk County, on the other hand, is about 75% unsewered, and that's had significant implications both for degradation of water quality and also constrains our economy because a lack of wastewater infrastructure, places some limits on what property owners can do with their property, and which is particularly problematic in downtown's, which have been struggling economically.

It's really long overdue for the government to come to grips with the fact that we have a need for a long term infrastructure plan. And finally, we do.

WSHU: If we want to make our communities sustainable, especially in our downtown's, where there's businesses and hopefully people, we need to be able to rework those downtown's give it a sewer or some kind of wastewater management plan. So that way, we can either renovate and build up, and that might include housing, affordable housing, maybe on top of restaurants and businesses and retail.

PS: Exactly. So that's the vision and many of the historic downtown areas in Suffolk County, and a lot of places we have community based visioning and planning taking place, and people are coming together to discuss and decide what they think is best for the future, their community, and inevitably, the linchpin for their future vision is having sewers, or some sort of wastewater infrastructure to both protect the environment, and also enable some sort of economic development in the community that cannot take place at this point, because there is no sewer infrastructure.

WSHU: Everybody wants a solution that fits their homes best. And that means when the county is working with them, you have a lot of different stakeholders that have potentially differing opinions at how different communities are able to respond.

PS: That's absolutely true. And no solution can be successful, unless it is supported by the community. And that's really the importance of community based planning. So our model in Suffolk has been inclusive, to work with individual communities recognizing how different they are, recognize their needs and their concerns, and ultimately, to bring together a very unique coalition. You know, for the very first time in history, we have environmental groups, local governments, the business community, organized labor, and the building trades, all coming together rowing in the same direction. For the implementation of a long term wastewater infrastructure plan. It's really a unique moment in history.

WSHU: The county has put a lot of money towards sewers. But it's a slow process because it means really overhauling a lot of these downtown's, which slows business, etc.

PS: It's the fact that for many areas of Suffolk County, a sewering will never be a practical or cost effective solution to the wastewater problem simply because of developmental densities in many suburban and suburban rural communities. We have, you know, one home for every few acres, the cost for each home to connect to sewers will be well in excess of $100,000. It's just not a cost effective approach. And so while there are many areas in Suffolk County, where we are pursuing sewering mostly in closer proximity to an existing treatment plant and has available capacity with developmental density, such that you can reasonably invest in sewer and get people connected. There are also vast areas of our county for which sewering will never be a realistic solution.

In Episode 3, Higher Ground tells stories about how Long Island is upgrading its wastewater treatment, including new sewers, advanced septic systems and shellfish restoration.

These are larger municipal projects, they require a significant investment, they're not usually viable unless we have some form of subsidy to make sewers more affordable for individual property owners.

On the other hand, at least for now, with the grant programs, we've established for the installation of IA programs, you know, the nitrogen reducing septic systems, which are an alternative to sewers, that can replace these, you know, very primitive cesspits that are in the ground right now. We're really at a point in our program now, where participation depends on the decision by an individual homeowner that it's a step they want to take that they are willing to make some level of investment along with grant funding that's available to do their part to improve the environment.

It will never work unless it's easy and affordable for homeowners trying to make it easy for them and affordable. We're seeing as you know, people are embracing the change.

A native Long Islander, J.D. is WSHU's managing editor. He also hosts the climate podcast Higher Ground. J.D. reports for public radio stations across the Northeast, is a journalism educator and proud SPJ member.